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Velvet Shooting Updates: Officers' Names Released; Differing Accounts Emerge; Previous Incidents at Dispensary Documented
Police chief says he's confident that independent investigation "will find the answers to many of the questions that have been raised and provide us all with an understanding as to what happened."
Aug. 30 Update: Please see comment section for update on received yesterday from City Manager Michael Chandler regarding the question of 24/7 security guards and the requirements of the city’s Cannabis Ordinance.
There have been several developments over the past few days in the officer-involved shooting in the early morning hours of Aug. 18 outside Velvet Cannabis on Sunrise Drive that claimed the life of a 20-year-old San Francisco man. Here’s a rundown:
Police Chief Andrew White on Friday released the names of the four officers involved in the fatal encounter who have been placed on administrative leave. They are officers Cole Bennett, Marc Kahue, Raul Ceja-Mendez and Alexander Tirona.
In the same Friday news release, White also described the two investigations that have been launched into the incident, one by the state Department of Justice and another by an outside firm “to determine whether the use of force by each officer complied with department policies and procedures.” The Department of Justice is handling the independent investigation in compliance with Assembly Bill 1506, which requires that the agency “investigate all incidents of an officer-involved shooting resulting in the death of an unarmed civilian in the state.” White said of the DOJ’s investigation:
I unequivocally support their investigation, and the police department is fully cooperating. I am confident they will find the answers to many of the questions that have been raised and provide us all with an understanding as to what happened.
White said his department plans to publicly release body camera footage from the incident within 45 days. In a separate email sent to me in response to several questions I asked him, White confirmed that the officers were all wearing the newly acquired, advanced Axon body cameras that the City Council authorized for the department back in February. This should greatly increase the value and the quality of the footage that was recorded from the incident; White described in detail at the February council meeting the various features and capabilities of these new cameras and indicated they would be a vast improvement over the outdated ones officers had been using (click this link to read more about the cameras from the February council discussion). The council also authorized the purchase of new in-car cameras in February, but they were not in use during the Aug. 18 incident because the equipment remains on back order with the manufacturer, White said.
Differing accounts emerge about fatal shooting
As the wait continues for body camera footage to be released detailing what led up to the fatal encounter with Tahmon Wilson, differing accounts have already emerged. In a report on the day of the shooting, KTVU reported that a blue Infiniti “hit an officer and then drove toward two other officers, prompting both to open fire, killing the suspect, according to police and Michael Rains, an attorney representing the Martinez police union.”
Meanwhile, in another KTVU report from Thursday, an attorney representing the family of Wilson alleged that officers shot at the car from the rear, fatally striking Wilson, as it attempted to flee the scene. Wilson’s brother, 22-year-old Tommy Wilson Jr., was shot in the back but survived, according to attorney Adante Pointer in the KTVU report (several other media reports also referenced Pointer’s and the family’s claims). According to a CBS Bay Area/Bay City News report on Friday, Pointer said his law firm plans to file a civil rights lawsuit against the Martinez Police Department on behalf of Wilson’s family. (I emailed Pointer last week inviting him and/or Wilson’s family to provide any comments or information on this matter that they would like but have not received a response as of this writing).
Police have released scarce details about the sequence of events that led to the shooting but said in an official statement on the day of the event that officers broadcast that “shots were fired” after one of two vehicles at the scene, described as a white SUV, fled. Tahmon Wilson was reportedly driving the blue Infiniti.
The fragments of information released, or alleged, so far about what transpired leave more questions than answers to the central issue of whether the officers’ use of deadly force was legal and justified. Given that four officers reportedly fired their weapons during the encounter, a critical question that the body camera footage will hopefully shed light on is the positioning of the officers in relation to Wilson’s car at the time he was struck by gunfire. If the gunfire did come from the rear of the car, as the Wilson family’s attorney alleges, were all four officers behind the car? Or is it possible that one or more were positioned in front of the car?
Though the accounts from the police union and family’s attorneys appear to contradict one another, it is conceivable that the car moved toward some officers, while others fired from behind. And if it did move toward the officers, was Wilson’s intent to injure them, or was he simply trying to flee officers positioned elsewhere? Whatever his intent, did officers have reasonable cause to fear for their lives when they decided to open fire given the events that preceded those actions?
If gunfire did originate from the white SUV, was it clear to the officers (or should it have been) that the SUV, and not Wilson’s Infiniti, was responsible? Did the two vehicles attempt to flee simultaneously when the bullets first rang out from the SUV (if that did indeed happen)? What was their proximity to one another? Were the officers outside their cars or still in them, or a combination, when they broadcast that shots were fired?
The quality and scope of the body camera footage will be key to any hope investigators have of determining solid answers to these and other questions.
Tahmon Wilson was among eight individuals arrested last November in a gang sweep involving multiple counties and law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area. San Francisco police said at the time that the “arrests were in connection with shootings, armed robberies, and auto burglaries throughout the Bay Area.|” Wilson was booked at Contra Costa County Jail, SFPD said at the time, on several firearms and ammunition charges, a gang enhancement and gang conspiracy.
In response to an email inquiry from me last week, Chief Assistant Contra Costa County District Attorney Simon O’Connell said a preliminary hearing for Wilson was held Jan. 13. “The judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to support the firearm possession charges and Wilson was discharged,” he said.
KTVU reported that Wilson still had a weapons case pending in San Francisco.
The fact that Wilson was arrested in a highly publicized gang sweep last year raises other questions. Police made a big deal at the time about these arrests, and they were widely covered in the Bay Area news media, but clearly at least some of the charges against Wilson specifically did not stick. Was his arrest justified? (This raises another question of the fairness of the news media reporting arrests such as these of individuals accused of serious crimes by police, and then not following up if the case is dismissed — which apparently happened with Wilson, at least in Contra Costa court— or the suspect is exonerated).
Were any of these other people caught up in the November sweep also present at the dispensary on Aug. 18 and play a role in whatever suspicious activity led to the police response, as well as the alleged gunfire that rang out after police arrived? (It appears that Wilson himself was unarmed, given the provisions for when the DOJ takes over the investigation of an officer-involved shooting.) Was Wilson’s decision to try to flee the scene (if that’s indeed what he tried to do) influenced by his previous run-ins with police that included the November arrest?
And, finally, what was the experience of the officers involved in the encounter and what type of training had they received on use-of-force standards? Was implicit bias or Wilson’s race as a Black man a factor? MPD has made many new hires in recent years as a result of turnover among its police force, and White at a council meeting in March commented on how the vetting of police recruits and training of officers had changed significantly in recent years. Here’s what I wrote then about what White had to say:
In response to a question by Councilman Satinder Malhi about hiring and training standards as the city seeks new police officers, White said: “Our hiring process has significantly changed within law enforcement just in the last few years.”
He noted that psychological testing for officer candidates now includes vetting individuals who may have expressed bias, as well as seeking out candidates who have the “right temperament to deal with critical situations.”
“We follow that up in the police academy through extensive training, which includes dealing with crisis intervention and persons with disabilities and use of forth and so forth.”
Once an officer is hired, the training process continues, White said, on issues such as implicit bias, as well as ongoing and specialty training tailored to issues officers are experiencing in the course of duty and daily interactions with the public.
“Rest assured, there’s significant training going on, and we’re going to identify opportunities to get even better,” he told the council.
Previous criminal incidents at Velvet documented
In response to my request for the number of criminal incidents at the city’s two dispensaries since they opened, White shared a spreadsheet with me that documented 10 prior burglary-related calls to Velvet’s address on Sunrise Drive since 2020 (not including the officer-involved shooting fatality, or a 2020 incident where a person was spotted looking into the building before running off). Incidents included the shattering of glass, use of a crow bar to force entry into the building, theft of cannabis products and/or cash, and tampering with and theft of ATM machines.
In an incident on Oct. 21, 2022, that seems somewhat similar to what happened on Aug. 18, police say vehicles fled the scene upon the arrival of officers. The officers called off their pursuit after the suspects evaded them. The most recent reported incident before Aug. 18 occurred on June 23, when three vehicles and multiple suspects were identified at the scene; a dispensary window was rammed by a vehicle.
As for Embarc on Alhambra Avenue, five burglary or robbery incidents were documented in the spreadsheet, starting with a delivery driver robbed at gunpoint on Nov. 17, 2021. The most recent incident occurred on March 28, 2023, and is believed to be related to a burglary attempt at Velvet the same night.
Other items of note related to Velvet incident
White confirmed that this was the first officer-involved shooting involving MPD since Sept. 6, 2008, when Sgt. Paul Starzyk was shot and killed responding to a shooting at a hair salon on Pacheco Boulevard. In that case, Starzyk and another officer exchanged gunfire with the suspect, who was also killed.
White told me that his department, which was already facing severe staffing challenges before the shooting, is covering the shifts lost to the administrative leaves with other officers working overtime. “Our existing staffing challenges certainly complicate the issue, so we are also coordinating with outside agencies for coverage options in the longer term,” he said.
White said he was not aware that any security personnel working for Velvet were on site when the incident occurred. “The call was a video alarm activation that I understand is remotely monitored,” he said. City Manager Michael Chandler told me Friday that his office was still researching the security guard issue and the requirements of the city’s Cannabis Ordinance and expected to have some information to share on the matter in the coming days. The ordinance, which was passed in 2019 and is posted on the city’s website, states the following about dispensaries’ required security plans:
Craig’s take: Until body camera footage is released and the independent investigations are completed, it is premature and I believe inappropriate for anyone to draw any conclusions from this tragic event. The new process in California that has been instituted in recent years to take these investigations out of the hands of local authorities (who unfortunately proved themselves too often unable or unwilling to conduct transparent, objective and fair investigations into the use of deadly force by law enforcement) should give us all confidence that the truth will ultimately be revealed and justice carried out. To date, we have heard nothing directly from any individuals who were present at the time this tragedy occurred (only secondhand information relayed through Wilson’s family and police sources). Once the evidence is collected and released to the public, we all will have an opportunity to weigh the facts, listen to the respective arguments, and form our own opinions about whether the use of force in this incident was justified, questionable or improper. And our elected leaders at the local and state levels will have an opportunity to implement any actions they deem appropriate and warranted to hopefully prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.
Knee-jerk reactions and attempts to exonerate or vilify the various individuals involved, including the police officers and Wilson, based on no verifiable information will neither further the cause of police accountability nor the interests law enforcement; they may rather undermine those causes and interests if the facts don’t line up with people’s preferred and presumed narratives.
I had the honor in June of accepting the city’s proclamation acknowledging Gun Violence Awareness Day, an issue that I have long been passionate about. Anytime a person loses their life to, or is threatened by, gunfire in our city, it is a sad reminder that this national epidemic knows no boundaries. It can strike anytime, anywhere, whether through suicide, accident, negligence, misjudgment, criminality, abuse of power or self-defense. Regardless of the circumstances, a life lost to gun violence is a cause for mourning and reflection on what we need to do to prevent such tragedies in the future, including keeping weapons out of the hands of people who pose a danger to themselves or others. I, along with so many other Martinezians, mourned Sgt. Starzyk on that September day in 2008 and felt for his family, something I noted in my comments to the council in June upon accepting the proclamation. And I mourn Mr. Wilson and feel for his family now.
Upcoming meetings of note
U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier will hold a town hall at Contra Costa Animals Services in Martinez on Monday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. The purpose will be to provide an update and discuss his efforts in Congress to protect animals. Residents can RSVP at the following link: https://desaulnier.house.gov/town-hall-rsvp
The city will hold a local road safety plan outreach meeting on Zoom on Tuesday, Aug. 29, at 6 p.m. Residents can attend the meeting by clicking the following link: https://bit.ly/4474CZe To learn more about the goals of this plan, go to https://www.cityofmartinez.org/Home/Components/Calendar/Event/445/16
The Martinez Unified School District Board of Trustees meets at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at the district offices, 921 Susanna St. The agenda can be viewed by clicking this link.
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